Cowboy (1958)

Cowboy 1958In a legendary career that earned him eight Oscar nominations and two wins, Jack Lemmon did it all. Equally adept at drama and comedy, he bounced back and forth between the two throughout his career. The genre he visited only once? The western. Here’s his lone western, 1958’s Cowboy.

It’s the 1870s and Frank Harris (Lemmon) is working as a clerk at a hotel in Chicago. It’s a dull life, Harris seeking something more. He gets that opportunity when Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) and his cowboys arrive in town after completing a long cattle drive from Mexico. Harris manages to convince Reese to let him on as a partner – he supplies some serious cash – to give him a chance to be a real-life cowboy. Reese is more than wary, even trying to back out of the deal, but ultimately takes the inexperienced Harris along. Reese, Harris and the cowboys head back south to build up another herd, but Harris has no idea of what he’s gotten into, but he’s a quick learner.

The cattle drive is one of those perfect, iconic western storylines, right up there with cavalry vs. Indians, settlers and the gunfighters. It’s a cool jumping off point for this Delmer Daves-directed western that isn’t necessarily hugely remembered. It’s a hot, sunny western that does show the darker, more honest side of being a cowboy. The portrayal of a cowboy is always romantic, idyllic, but the truth couldn’t be further from the truth. It was long hours in the saddle for not much pay and the constant threat of danger from weather, stampedes, Indians and bandits. Fun, huh?

The guts of the movie is the rivalry between Ford’s Reese and Lemmon’s Harris, the two pros carrying the 92-minute movie. We see Reese pushing the men, the focus on getting the cattle to market. It’s a harsh, unpleasant job he has to do. Harris thinks he’s too harsh though, questioning how far is too far. As the drive develops though, the roles begin to switch, Reese seeing maybe he has gone too far and Harris viewing the drive as profit and money alone. It’s a pretty cool back-and-forth that develops. There’s some genuine heat too on the trail, either man seemingly one good push away from pulling a gun. Excellent performances from Ford and Lemmon.

Not a huge supporting cast, but some recognizable faces pop up. Victor Manuel Mendoza is excellent as Paco Mendoza, Reese’s right-hand man. It’s cool (and ahead of its time) to see a Mexican cowboy in such a prominent role. The rest of the cowboys include Brian Donlevy, Dick York (later of Bewitched fame), Richard JaeckelStrother Martin and King Donovan. Donlevy is great as Doc Bender, a former gunhand turned cowboy. York is the ladies man and Jaeckel more of a villainous cowboy. Anna Kashfi plays Maria, Harris’ love interest living in Mexico.

My biggest complaint with ‘Cowboy’ is that at 92-minutes, it just doesn’t accomplish much. It takes quite a while to get going, and then when it reaches the cattle drive, it seems to be in a rush. We build to this big confrontation between Ford and Lemmon, and then it’s wrapped up in a flash, the story ending on an odd comedic note. The finale reminded me a fair bit of Red River, all build-up and then the payoff isn’t worth it. The drive itself feels especially rushed. The action is solid – including a showdown between the cowboys and a Comanche war party – but there’s not enough of it.

A lot of potential that never fully delivers. I still liked ‘Cowboy,’ especially with its Arizona and New Mexico locations and a good musical score from George Duning. I just wish it was a little better. The dark, honest story and its potential is there for the taking. Still, a western with Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon in memorable leading roles ain’t a bad thing.

Cowboy (1958): ***/****

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3:10 to Yuma (1957)

310_to_yuma_281957_film29My love of westerns typically goes down two paths; toward John Wayne movies and spaghetti westerns. The gap then in a genre that I proudly call my favorite? The 1950s, a hit or miss decade for westerns. When they’re good though, they’re real good. It’s been years since I watched today’s entry, a genuine classic from 1957, 3:10 to Yuma.

In the Arizona territory in the 1880s, Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) are two very different men who find themselves on a similar path. Evans is a small rancher who could potentially lose his ranch during a drought. Wade is an infamous outlaw at the head of a gang known throughout the territory. Wade has pushed his luck though and has been captured in the town of Bisbee. The problem? No one wants to risk their life to transport Wade to prison and risk incurring the wrath of the outlaw’s gang. Desperately needing money, Evans takes on the task for $200 upon delivery. Can the rancher pull it off and get Wade to prison? Will the gang get to him first? A train awaits in Contention where all roads converge.

What an excellent movie. From director Delmer Daves and based off a short story from Elmore Leonard, ‘3:10’ is a gem. Filmed in black and white and clocking in at just 92 minutes, this is an adult western. There is little to no gunplay other than a few shots here and there. Instead, this is a western about mood, intensity and a story that is always moving but almost in a lyrical way and never in a rush. Helping drive the story along is a very solid score from George Duning and a memorable theme — listen HERE — that you’ll be humming along with for days. A whole bunch of positives going on.

So little gunplay and a story built on dialogue and…yeah, just dialogue and intensity. That movie better have some damn good performances, and ‘3:10’ has two great performances to lead the way. Heflin and Ford are two of the more underrated actors of their era, and both deliver one of their career-best parts. I don’t know if Ford has ever been better. An actor who typically played a stout, resolute good guy looks to be having a ball playing the bad guy. He’s vicious, bottom-line, highly intelligent and manipulative. The most impressive thing is that this isn’t a ‘hey, look at me!’ performance. Ford is subtle and underplays the part and steals the movie in the process.

Heflin is equally as good as the other side of the coin, the rancher who’s always done things the right way, how he’s supposed to…and what has it gotten him? A struggling ranch he may lose, putting his wife and two sons out in the process. In Wade, he sees multiple opportunities for some much-needed $, some more legit and some illegal. It is a great part as you see Ford’s manipulation makes its impact as Heflin’s Evans starts to question what exactly he should do. Should he do the right thing? There is a straightforward elegance to this relationship, to the story and the execution.This movie succeeds. The last 45 minutes are mostly 2 men talking — an epic cat-and-mouse game — in a hotel room, and it works in effortless fashion.

Not a huge supporting cast on display here, but it’s a good cast. Felicia Farr plays Emmy, a saloon girl who Wade meets and may know from his past. Kinda risque stuff as we see them interact too, especially for a 1957 western (but it is fairly subtle). Leora Dana is solid as Dan’s wife who is a worrier but most of all, purely loves her husband. Robert Emhardt plays Butterfield, the owner of the oft-robbed stage line, while Henry Jones plays Alex Potter, the town drunk who steps up when needed. And last but not least, Richard Jaeckel is memorable in an underused part as Charlie Prince, Wade’s loyal right-hand man and a bit of an unhinged gunslinger.

A lot of fun to catch up with his 1957 western. Not always mentioned as an all-time classic, but it deserves its reputation. It’s so good at building tension and mood and intensity that ‘3:10’ is a movie that is actually nerve-wracking and uncomfortable to watch at times. Ford and Heflin carry the load with a strong supporting cast chipping in. The finale? Light on gunplay but high on intensity with a chase — not a gunfight — wrapping things up. Highly recommended. Also worth watching, the 2007 remake starring Christian Bale as Evans, Russell Crowe as Wade and Ben Foster as Charlie.

3:10 to Yuma (1957): *** 1/2 /****